As the nation celebrated its bicentennial 28 years ago, RFK Stadium officials decided to commemorate the event by burying a time capsule packed with Redskins memorabilia during a home game the following season.
So, as more than 50,000 fans looked on, a 14-by-14-inch plastic cube was ceremoniously interred several feet behind the Redskins bench at RFK shortly before the kickoff of a Redskins-Cowboys game on Nov. 27, 1977. Inside was a souvenir football signed by quarterback Joe Theismann and the rest of the team, 40 years of Redskins film highlights, pennants, programs, and signed letters by President Gerald R. Ford and Redskins coach George Allen.
The plan was to open the capsule with the passing of the millennium in 2000.
Allen moved on and Joe Gibbs became head coach, leading the team to three Super Bowls and some of the most stirring memories ever witnessed at RFK. Gibbs retired, Redskins owner Jack Kent Cooke built a new stadium, abandoned the District for Maryland, the team was sold to Daniel Snyder. The millennium came and went.
And the time capsule stayed underground, largely forgotten, a casualty of the lingering bad feelings between District and RFK officials and the Redskins over the team's flight to the suburbs in 1997.
George P. "Pat" Morse, a retired intelligence lawyer and season ticket holder for more than 40 years, was on the field in November 1977 to help Interior Secretary Cecil D. Andrus and RFK managing director Robert Sigholtz bury the capsule.
The thinking was "communicating something about the nature of the country," said Morse, who as a member of the Citizens Bicentennial Committee helped spearhead the time capsule idea. "To give people a sense of history and identification with a different time."
Three years before the millennium, Morse, 87, who lives in Silver Spring, began calling attention to the time capsule by sending a letter to the Redskins reminding them it was in the ground. "I wanted to pull it out in 2000," Morse said.
No one seemed to care much, at least as far as Morse could tell. He sent letters to D.C. officials, including one to Mayor Anthony Williams on July 8, 2000, and to representatives of the D.C. Sports & Entertainment Commission, which oversees RFK.
He stayed in touch with the Redskins after Snyder bought the team. But Morse said he and the Redskins couldn't reach an agreement on how and when to open the time capsule.
And there was another problem, too. Since the Redskins no longer played their games at RFK, the capsule was no longer on Redskins territory. The District, the D.C. Sports & Entertainment Commission, even the Department of the Interior -- which owns the land RFK is built on -- each had a say about what happened with it.
There was some discussion about flying the capsule to FedEx Field to open it during a halftime ceremony at a Redskins-Cowboys game, but apparently no one wanted the contents to leave the District.
"I was not at the game [when it was buried], but I remember the coverage and hoopla of the event," Snyder, who was 13 in 1977, said in a statement issued by a spokesman. "I was a huge fan then and thought it was pretty cool that the team was involved in the Bicentennial celebration in its own way. When we were contacted in 2000 about helping to have the capsule brought to a game at FedEx Field to be opened, I was all for it. Unfortunately, the folks at RFK wouldn't allow it. When [Morse] approached us before our 70th anniversary celebration in 2002, we asked again and RFK turned us down."
D.C. Sports & Entertainment Commission officials don't see it quite that way.
Bob Goldwater, who headed the commission from November 2000 to last fall, said no one from the Redskins contacted him about the time capsule. He would not say whether he opposed giving the capsule to the Redskins, but claimed that Morse wanted the capsule to remain at RFK.
"We were very happy to honor Mr. Morse's wishes about keeping it at RFK," Goldwater said. "We were following the lead of Mr. Morse."
Goldwater said he wanted to leave the capsule in the ground until a major sports event at RFK, such as a Redskins-Dallas alumni game. There was talk of a D.C. sports hall of fame, and of opening the capsule in 2002 on the 40th anniversary of RFK. They even discussed using it to make a splash if the District was awarded a Major League Baseball franchise.
"We were trying to tie it into an event so that Mr. Morse and the time capsule could get appropriate recognition," Goldwater recalled. "We thought it would be a courtesy as well as a sentimental thing to do it in conjunction with something at the Redskins. It would have been a perfect fit."
Morse said he sent Goldwater letters throughout 2002 and 2003. He considered suing RFK and the Department of Interior. "We just couldn't get anyone to cooperate," Morse said.
Then, without notifying Morse or, apparently, the Redskins, RFK officials dug up the capsule, according to Troy Scott, the RFK Stadium manager. No one is able to recall exactly when.
Sometime afterward, officials called Morse and told him the capsule had been unearthed and to come over to RFK to pick it up.
What Morse found when he got to RFK last Nov. 7 left him stunned -- and angry.
Inside the box was a pile of thick brown goo. Most of the documents were gone, disintegrated in the mud or corroded. The autographs of Theismann and a few other players were still legible on what was left of the souvenir football. There was an intact football kickoff tee, the Ford and Allen letters, but the game tapes were useless.
Morse suspects foul play. He thinks someone dug up the capsule over the years, and reburied it.
"I'm angry that we went through a great deal of effort to accomplish something that has some historical attraction," he said. "I'm angry because what I thought was precious memorabilia of a certain era has been destroyed. What went in the ground was different than what came out."
RFK officials said the only thing that went wrong is that the capsule wasn't waterproofed.
"No one touched it for all those years. I know because I was there," said Tony Burnett, the former chief groundskeeper at RFK who is now retired. "When I dug it up, it was in the condition it was. There was just water in it. They didn't put it in a waterproof container."
Even the capsule's maker said there's no guarantee against water damage.
"We would never have guaranteed anything to be waterproof," said Rick Rowe of Piedmont Plastics of Rockville, which was known as Read Plastics when the capsule was built. "There's a pretty good chance it did leak over time."
Morse isn't convinced. He said there was no evidence of cracks in the capsule, but that the lid's seal had been broken.
It took him a long time before he could muster the will to sift through the contents. He now has them in the basement of his home, along with a lot of other Redskins memorabilia from the last five decades.
"If there was any way I could have it refurbished, renovated, redone, I would do it," said Morse, placing the deflated, torn football on its tee. "It's heartbreaking to throw it away. We worked awful hard."